When Marvin Horváth married his husband Ivan, he was still living in a woman’s body despite his male identity. In order to become who he feels he is on the inside, he underwent surgery and hormone therapy after years of marriage and the birth of two children. Director and anthropologist Soňa G. Lutherová shows what the transition process entails in the documentary Happy Man. He talks about the film presented by the One World festival in an interview.
How did you meet the Horváths?
We met for the first time in 2008 at the airport, when my partner and I were heading to Sweden for a PhD. The husband happened to know Ivan by sight, so we started talking and found out that we had a common journey. The Horváths had just moved to Gothenburg. Even after we returned to Slovakia, we continued to keep in touch with them. Both us and the Horváths then had children, and for some time life unfolded in the expected direction. Until 2017 when Marvin made a coming out.
Until then, you had no idea that Marvin could be transgender?
There were some clues. Marvin, for example, started writing erotic novels even before the transition, which were always told from a male point of view and featured homosexual characters. That actually surprised me a little, but I wasn’t looking for it in any way. His coming out surprised me at first, because I perceived it from the point of view of my own maternal experience. But I accepted Marvin’s identity very quickly. As an anthropologist, I had previously dealt with the topic of trans children, so I understood his experience. Maybe that’s why Marvin felt he could talk to me openly.
Did he doubt whether he should share his story in front of the camera?
When we started filming, we never dreamed that a feature film would be created, which would be co-produced by HBO and screened at international festivals. It just snowballed gradually. At the time we started working on the film, Marvin was in the early stages of transition. He was both anxious about what was to come and at the same time angry about the way society treats trans people. So he felt the need to give strength to others who are going through a similar experience. He believed his story could help them.
Then I myself realized that even though there are already documentaries and feature films about trans people, they are often portrayed as some kind of extreme. A number of creators popularize the topic of gender dysphoria and mainly choose aspects of it that are intended to shock the audience. I, on the other hand, wanted to bring him back to earth – to understand Marvin’s unique experience, which most of us haven’t had, but at the same time to show that his family life is not particularly different from ours.
On the other hand, the feeling that your gender identity does not correspond to your gender is very difficult to convey.
Yes, the experience is unimaginable for a cisgender person. But I remember one experience that could partially explain that feeling. When the hard lockdown started during the pandemic, I was dealing with quite strong anxieties. Then one day I called Marvin and described to him how I’ve been feeling for about a week now that the reality I found myself in couldn’t be my life after all. I was sitting at home, looking out the window at the empty streets, and I couldn’t accept that this is how the world around me would work now. Marvin told me then that people with gender dysphoria experience something similar with their own bodies. That was a big aha moment for me.
I suspect Marvin felt this dissonance long before he decided to transition as a husband and parent of two.
Yes, but like me, he grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the stories of people from sexual minorities hardly appeared in mass media and popular culture. And if they did, they were mostly gays and lesbians. We knew Freddie Mercury and Martina Navrátilová, sometimes we received warning messages that stereotyped homosexuality with AIDS, and that was the end of it. Trans people have been marginalized. At most, you could see transvestites in some variety shows, but that’s a completely different story. For Marvin, the first step to realizing his own identity was writing, which he had been doing since childhood. But whenever he tried to write from the point of view of female characters, it was not his own. The male gender had always seemed much more natural to him.
“He felt the need to give strength to others who are going through a similar experience,” Soňa G. Lutherová explains why Marvin Horváth (left) agreed to film. | Photo: CTK
Thus, writing could become therapy for him, helping him manage his inner struggle.
Possible. After all, for any creative person, writing is an escape into a world in which they feel comfortable and safe. The issue of safety is crucial for trans people because, like other minorities, they are very vulnerable. Before Marvin decided to come out as an adult, he understandably had to resolve a number of dilemmas within himself. Such a step in life can affect your relationships with your partner, children and parents. Their ability to accept the situation then significantly affects how you feel about yourself.
Therefore, the transition does not only involve the surgical procedure itself.
Exactly. In the public debate, the transition is still mainly reduced to medical and legal changes, which understandably belong to it. Trans people undergo hormone therapy, surgery and, unfortunately, still sterilization in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Then they have their name and other personal information changed. Part of the whole process is also acceptance by the immediate environment and wider social community, which includes, for example, being addressed by the correct gender and name. At the same time, each trans person has different needs, and someone, for example, does not even want to undergo an operative procedure.
As you mentioned, Marvin lives with his family in Gothenburg. Do trans people have it easier in progressive liberal Sweden than in the Czech Republic or Slovakia?
When it comes to acceptance by society, the situation is completely different in Sweden. For example, I often get asked how Marvin’s children coped with coming out. And here it is necessary to realize that they grow up in an environment with much greater diversity. In their class, they have several classmates who are raised by two mothers or two fathers, so others do not perceive their family as anything exotic. Regarding the medical procedure itself, the most important difference compared to the Czech Republic and Slovakia is that compulsory sterilization has not been in force in Sweden for several years. The state even compensated the people it forced to mutilate themselves in retrospect.
The whole process that precedes the operation, however, takes a similar amount of time in Sweden as here. As in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it involves a lot of expert commissions that assess whether or not a person is trans enough, or whether the decision to undergo transition cannot be related to some associated mental illness. But this creates a vicious circle. Because if you need to undergo a procedure to be in harmony with yourself, and the procedure keeps getting delayed because other people decide if you have the right to have it, your mental state naturally gets worse and worse. You find yourself under incredible pressure, experiencing depression and anxiety, and doctors begin to wonder if you suffer from a mental illness. Instead of helping trans people, society puts more obstacles in front of them.
I would return to the question of how Marvin’s coming out was received by his children. I wonder if in preschool age they could even understand the issue of gender and how to explain such an abstract concept to them.
So far, the younger son has sailed through it without a problem, as he was too young at the time of Marvin’s coming out to notice any change. The older daughter’s first reaction was very sweet and childish – she asked if she had to cut her hair short now that Marvin cut it like that. Of course, Marvin reassured her not to worry that she didn’t have to cut her hair short, and surprisingly that was it. I think the sentence that is heard in the film is also valid: Children do not deal with the topic at all, unless their environment makes it clear to them that something is wrong with their parent.
At the same time, the question must be asked whether it is better for the children to live in a loving environment of a functioning family, or for one of the parents to be dissatisfied with himself for a long time and fall into depression. When the viewers of the film with Marvin go through the four years that I watched him, they will clearly see at the end that he is now in a much better mental state than before, which then has a positive effect on the condition of the whole family.
Photo author: Honza Mudra
Soňa G. Lutherová (41)
A social and visual anthropologist originally from Bratislava, she works at the Institute of Ethnology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He examines changing identities in post-socialist countries, he is devoted to material culture and housing culture. In the documentary Zatopené, she told about the fate of people connected with the chateau in the village of Parížovce, which disappeared due to the Liptovská Mara water reservoir. At this year’s edition of the One World festival, she presented the film Happy Man, which tells the story of Marvin Horváth, who is going through a transition in adulthood. Marvin’s great support is his partner Ivan, who says in the film that he doesn’t mind Marvin’s masculine appearance, nor the fact that people around him may perceive him as a homosexual, even though he is not gay. Did he really accept everything with such calmness, or was he just not showing all his feelings?
I dealt with this question during the whole shoot and I constantly tried to nudge Ivan to tell me how he felt. But after those four years, I’m convinced that he’s really at peace with Marvin’s transition and accepts it as calmly as he does in front of the camera. This may be related to both his nature and his profession, as he works as a psychiatrist and thus has professional training in dealing with difficult life situations. Many times someone objected to me that it must be terrible for Ivan and that he would break up with Marvin in his place. But when you and your partner have been in a relationship for many years, you are raising children together and you have gone through a number of formative experiences, you think about it completely differently.
The documentary Happy Man captures Marvin in the period when he has already come out and is awaiting surgery. Was he hesitant to undergo it, or was he determined from the start?
I think you, like any trans person, went through a long period of hesitation. I often encounter the misconception that people in the West decide overnight to change their gender and then change their mind after surgery. At the same time, our film shows that even for Marvin, who is very privileged in a way because he lives in Sweden and can afford private care, such a step is very difficult. The assumption that people undergo the transition just for pleasure is therefore a complete misunderstanding of the situation.
In the Czech Republic, similar arguments are heard by some experts. They warn that today’s teenagers easily hear about trans people on social networks, begin to have doubts about their gender identity and then recklessly decide to change sex.
For the general population, I understand such concerns. I am a mother myself, so I understand that parents worry about their children. Especially in the period of puberty, when they are very vulnerable, because they suddenly step out of the safe circle of the family, they try to find their way in the world around them and find their place in it. On the other hand, I don’t have much understanding for experts who contribute to the fear of trans people.
If a teenager experiences uncertainty about his own gender, parents should give him the space to understand himself, try to guide him through the period of discovery and be his protection from the surrounding world, which can be unaccepting and threatening. By suppressing his efforts to accept himself and forcing him into a gender position in which he does not feel natural, we can do terrible damage. Adolescents often fall into depression and anxiety. In extreme cases, they resort to suicide.
Video: When I accepted the idea that I was a woman, everything fell into place, says director Daniela Špinar (8/6/2022)
I wondered if it was just a leak or my hysterical pose as an artist. But I realized that it is reality, says the director. | Video: Daniela Písařovicová
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